Friday, January 11, 2008

Ethical Issues in Information Technology

The term “ethics” comes from the Greek word ethike that means “character,” and indeed the ancient Greeks conceived issues about what people should do in terms of impact upon character (Aristotle, 350 BCE). Nowadays, “ethics” is an inclusive term for concerns also referred to by “morality,” “value,” and “justice.” Besides character and action, ethics in this inclusive sense is also concerned with the value or goodness of things and situations and with the justness of institutions (both formal and informal).

Much professional ethics for IT consultants, for example, revolves around preserving and developing a good reputation for being the sort of person who will regularly do good work, make sure a project is done well, and the like. One’s reputation is for being the kind of person who will consistently behave well, but good character is by no means our only concern with regard to what people should do. Bad actions and bad performance can be more important than any amount of good reputation if they are bad enough. People sometime surprise us when they act “out of character.” On the other hand, it is the belief in enduring character that allows people to “coast on their (good) reputations.” And IT firms affirm their belief in the enduring character of technical expertise when they hire previously convicted hackers like Kevin Mitnick.

The business discipline

The business discipline under consideration is Information Technology Statement of ethical issue:

There are at least three sets of conflicting interests in Information Technology outsourcing: 1) the corporations who save large amounts of money on labor costs; 2) the offshore workers who receive better salaries in their home economies; and 3) the United States workers who lose their jobs.

Each of these parties has important considerations involving their own interests: the corporation for maximizing profits and shareholder return, the global workers for improving their income, and the U.S. workers for keeping their jobs. There are additional self- interested considerations for the corporation: Some jobs simply do not outsource well, even if the technical abilities of the workers in the two countries are the same. But even when all self-interested considerations are taken into account, there remains an ethical issue, an issue of justice. Defenders of globalization maintain that free trade of jobs will make everyone better off in the long run. This claim goes beyond considerations of self-interest and it may be true or false. Due to globalization jobs occur within a social and economic context, and it is within that context that economic inequalities are ethically justified. So why is globalization of employment any more justified than globalizing of tax liabilities? It is clear in both cases that corporations benefit from the social and economic institutions that allow them to function in their home country. It might be expected that they make corresponding contributions to their home country even when they could do better otherwise. On an institutional level, many such principles are laws, but the ethical component of such discussion is implied in the famous statement, “There ought to be a law.” The ethical question behind this statement is “Ought there to be a law?” And even if there is a law, the ethical question is “Is it a just law?” And behind this question is a major theoretical question, “What is justice?”

Identification of the business decision to be made

The range of ethical issues important for IT is perhaps broader than one might have thought. But are the issues really any different from other ethical issues? Does IT itself produce circumstances that don’t fit into pre-existing ethical categories? The second question is: What features of Information Technology create new ethical issues? There are many questions and there may not be very many answers!

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